Improving food safety in restaurants, one smiley face at a time 

food-safety-ratingsKing County’s food safety employees want to ensure that the County’s restaurant safety ratings are as simple and user-friendly as possible for residents so they turned to a new system that everyone understands: emojis.

“[Diners] were telling us that they wanted the information to be easy to understand, and to see it at the restaurant, helping them make decisions on the spot,” Becky Elias, Food Program Manager with Public Health – Seattle & King County, said. “People can walk down the street, see a window sign outside of a restaurant and be able to easily understand that restaurant’s food safety practices at a glance,”

Under the new first-of-its-kind system, restaurants will receive one of four food safety ratings that will be posted on restaurant window signs that indicate how well a restaurant practices food safety – “Needs to Improve,” “Okay,” “Good” and “Excellent.”

In creating the new system, the County began by learning what sort of rating system would work best for local diners and restaurant operators.

“Students from UW asked focus groups about using stars and letter grades,” Damarys Espinoza, Community Engagement and Outreach Manager, said. “They found that people associate stars with consumer reviews or how a food tastes, and not how safe it is. Letter scales, such as ABC, were found to be confusing by many people…Through additional focus groups and surveys, we learned that emojis, or smiley faces, are something that most everyone understands.”

While simplicity was a key goal in the new system, employees also wanted to make the information more comprehensive, so inspectors will now use the last four inspections to determine ratings rather than just one.

“Using four routine inspections gives a better idea of how that restaurant practices food safety over time instead of just a snap shot of one inspection,” Espinoza said.

To be truly effective the food safety ratings also have to work for restaurant operators.

“We listened to the concerns of restaurant operators about food safety inspection consistency,” Espinoza said. “One way we are improving our work is by having inspectors do inspections side by side once a month. This helps them share skills and learn from each other. This has been a great way to build teamwork and with our staff create a more consistent way of doing inspections.”

The rating system is being rolled out in phases across the county, starting with the northwest part, so you may not see the new signs in all restaurants until the end of 2017.